This piece was originally published in 2008.
“I’ll tell you my idea of progress,” says Tony Benn. “You come up with a good idea – it’s ignored. If you go on, you’re mad. Then if you go on, you’re dangerous. There’s a pause. And then you can’t find anyone at the top who doesn’t claim to have thought of it in the first place.” At 83, and elevated to the role of unofficial conscience to the nation, Benn is presumed to be full of good ideas. In a poll last month comparing potential prime ministers “at the peak of their powers”, Benn received more than three times as many votes as Gordon Brown.
In the Eighties, however, when he stood for both the leadership and the deputy leadership of the Labour Party (losing only narrowly to Denis Healey for the latter job in 1981), there were plenty who thought Benn was mad. The Sun asked if his vehement left-wing views – not to mention his “weird” vegetarianism and obsessive tea-drinking – made him “the most dangerous man in Britain”. Even his old cabinet colleague Tony Crosland had described him as “just a bit cracked”.
But two decades earlier, as a member of the 1964-70 Labour government, Benn was neither indulged saint nor firebrand subversive. In October 1968, the then editor of the New Statesman, Paul Johnson, wrote that Benn was “handsome, immensely confident, able and articulate . . . a highly successful minister, who will quite possibly be prime minister one day”. He was minister for technology, in charge of “a new department that can really change the face of Britain and its prospects for survival”, as Benn noted in his diary when promoted from postmaster general in 1966. The business of being in government kept him “absorbed from morning till night”, he says. “I was absolutely up to my eyes.”
There was funding computer development, setting up British Leyland “to save the motor industry” and Concorde, which he says he would never have started, “but there were a quarter of a million jobs at stake”. There were meetings with Romanian scientists enlivened by a lot of eastern bloc jokes (“Can an elephant get a hernia? Yes, if he’s trying to lift the productivity of Soviet agriculture”), and endless cabinet discussions about post-devaluation cuts and who Harold Wilson thought was out to get him that week. Light relief was a visit to “the new Wimpy Bar at Notting Hill Gate”.
But of the great events on the streets of London, Paris and Mexico City, of the mass movements that ignited protests worldwide, there is barely a mention in The Benn Diaries 1940-1990. That they merit little space in the memoirs of Jim Callaghan, a conservative authoritarian at the Home Office, and Roy Jenkins, a sophisticate attracted to the high life, is less surprising. But Benn? Surely the great totem of the left was itching to join the comrades behind the barricades?
“You mustn’t think that as a cabinet minister you can range over whatever you’re interested in,” says Benn, excavating the dottle from his pipe into a tin can as we sit in the basement of his Holland Park house. “I wasn’t engaged in any of the campaigns, because I couldn’t be. All these thoughts were clear in my mind at the time, but you won’t find much reference to them [in the diaries] because, as I say, you don’t have time to do much reflection.” Fair enough. But what were these thoughts going round Benn’s mind? Getting an answer to the question proves difficult.
I mention that Tariq Ali, a leader of the 1968 anti-Vietnam mar ches on Grosvenor Square, recently wrote: “Labour cabinet ministers had been discussing in public whether or not I could be deported.” “I never discussed it at cabinet,” says Benn quickly. I point out that that’s not quite what Ali said. “Well, I . . .” begins Benn, and then sort of growls. What did he think of the events in Paris? “They were right! I was against the Vietnam War, you see. Harold Wilson came to cabinet once and said, ‘Lyndon Johnson is begging me even to send a bagpipe band to Vietnam’ . . .” Benn continues to talk entertainingly, but tangentially, about Attlee stopping Truman using the bomb in Korea, Eisenhower on Suez, Blair and Iraq.
Campaigning with Kaunda
I try again. What were his feelings when he heard news of the Paris riots: was he shocked? “Well, I was against the Vietnam War, then my officials came to me and said, ‘There’ll be a demonstration in London and they might try to take control of this department.’ I said, ‘I’ve been trying to get control of it for several years!'” Again, a nice story, but not really to the point. I bring up another specific.
An NS report at the time noted that the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, which organised the London marches, had no support “from the familiar personalities of the left” such as “the post-Bevanite wing of the Labour Party”. Why? “Well, I resigned from the front bench in 1958 over nuclear weapons. Throughout the Fifties I was campaigning for colonial freedom with Kenyatta, Nkru mah, Kaunda. But when you get into government you have a different job.”
This doesn’t address the gulf between a socialist government and the masses. How could Labour be so out of touch? “Oh, that always happens,” says Benn. “All progress begins at the bottom – don’t be surprised by that. You wouldn’t expect a lead to come from the top, I’m afraid.
“I think what I did was on the whole good, but it didn’t touch the real questions.” By this point Benn appears to think that I blame him personally for not being out on the streets. “I have to accept responsibility for everything the government did. Under collective cabinet responsibility that’s the deal. I’m not interested in defending myself at all. I made every mistake in the book. I’m not ashamed of making mistakes.”
What about his colleagues? Did Callaghan understand the marchers? “I can’t answer that.” Benn claims it was reflecting on this period that moved him to the left. So why was he radicalised and others weren’t? “You’d have to ask the others. After all, many of the people in that government left Labour and tried to destroy it. The SDP: Jenkins, [George] Brown, they weren’t Labour anyway. They were using the party just to get into power.” Benn’s flow is interrupted by an upbeat samba that turns out to be his mobile-phone ringtone. “Don’t think I’m trying to defend myself,” he says on his return.
In Arguments for Socialism Benn wrote that the battle to divest himself of the peerage he inherited in 1960, which meant he could not sit in the House of Commons, gave him “just enough of a taste of what happens when authority decides to crush a dissident. From that moment on I saw through completely new eyes.” In 1968, however, was he in fact still too much a part of the Establishment to empathise with the protesters? “Well, every minister’s a part of the Establishment.”
A very British coup
Some people evidently thought so. Benn’s diaries record a party at which three sociology students surrounded him and called him a fascist. They “called me it so often I got rather angry”, he wrote. “Up to them,” he says quietly. “Free country. Say what you like.” I try to explain that it seems extraordinary to anyone who grew up with the Benn of the Seventies and Eighties that he should have been seen in this light. “Ha, ha, ha, don’t ask me.” Then he raises his voice. He feels, he says, as though I’m bringing up every horrible thing that’s ever been said about him and giving him the chance to answer back. “I don’t want to answer back. I’ve published my diaries, 15 million words uncut. So long as I can look at myself in the morning when I shave without being ashamed, then I’m happy.”
There were other major events in this period. Benn rightly points to the Race Relations Act 1968, the easing of divorce and discussions over raising the school-leaving age as progressive achievements of an administration beset by sterling, gold and balance-of-payments crises. The Mirror chairman Cecil King also tried to start a coup to replace the elected government with one led by Lord Mountbatten (nothing came of it, but Wilson’s paranoia about plots has since proved justified). “King called me in and said, ‘There might be a place for you,'” Benn recalls. “I rang Harold, the company got rid of King and so it ended.” Prince Philip, he tells me, even said “the Queen should attend cabinet meetings. Lunatic conception.”
Different times, then. And Benn does concede that the question of the gap between Labour and the activists is a “perfectly fair point”. “Buildings belong to the powerful,” he explains, “and the streets belong to the people. Gradually the streets get into the buildings.” In 1968, however, it is clear that Benn had not left the building. Strange how, 40 years on, this long-time Daniel of the left, a man who can look back on many righteous, principled battles fought, still seems troubled by his lack of participation in the movement of ’68.
“On one occasion I went to a demonstration in Trafalgar Square when I was a minister,” he offers. “Nobody spotted me; I just sat at the back and listened.” He didn’t speak up, in other words. I think Tony Benn wishes he had.
Benn: the CV
- 1925 Born Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn. His father, William, is a Liberal MP who defects to the Labour Party in 1927, serves as secretary of state for India and is ennobled as Viscount Stansgate in 1942
- 1950 Elected MP for Bristol South-East
- 1960 Inherits his father’s title. Fights to renounce his peerage and remain in the Commons, precipitating the Peerage Act 1963
- 1964-66 Serves as postmaster general under Harold Wilson
- 1966-70 Enters cabinet as minister of technology
- 1974-75 Secretary of state for industry
- 1975-79 Secretary of state for energy
- 1981 Stands for deputy leadership of Labour Party against Denis Healey. Loses
- 1988 Stands for party leadership against Neil Kinnock. Loses
- 2001 Retires as an MP in order “to devote more time to politics”
Research by Katie Wake